The importance of great copywriting on shopping sites

I know that most bloggers tend to just write about blogging unto itself, but today, in honor of the fact that we’re right in the heart of the Christmas Holiday buying season, I’d like to talk about what makes a good online store, and how so many companies do such a poor job that they are losing sales left and right.
I’ll start out by showing what is perhaps one of the worst online stores I’ve seen in a while, Sled Warehouse. Don’t tip off my son, but we’re looking for a tri-ski sled for him because he’s just that kind of young lunatic and we have a nice sledding hill right behind our house. Digging around, we found two locations online that had the kind of sled we sought, Sled Warehouse and Highlights for Kids.


But while Highlights has a reasonable page of information for their PT Blaster Sled, Sled Warehouse seems to have forgotten the entire area of product descriptions. See for yourself by going to this page and clicking on the “PT Blaster” image.
You’re doubtless expecting some useful information about the product, perhaps a description of its components, ideally a customer review or two, and a larger picture. That’s not what you get, though, and that’s why their site is so poor and why I would be unsurprised to find that they have a very low visitor to customer conversion rate.
Now, while we’re looking at product descriptions, it’s worth pointing out that as companies have gone online, they seem to generally have forgotten how to write compelling descriptions of products. Exhibit A is Sharper Image (Nasdaq: SHRP), a generally troubled company anyway, but am I the only one who remembers getting these splendid catalogs with personal descriptions of each of the featured products by [recently ousted/resigned] founder Richard Thalheimer? Now their site is yet another database-driven shopping destination that’s just as boring as all the others.
Consider this cool 7-inch portable DVD player, which should be incredibly easy to write about. But as you see if you go to the page, the site doesn’t even have a description, instead just including a tedious set of bullet points highlighting features.
Didn’t the online team at Sharper Image get the memo that people buy solutions, not features? Sheesh.
Sharper Image is hardly alone in this, however. Consider how Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) describes a very similar portable DVD player:


“Entertainment deprived? Take one tablet and enjoy. The COBY TF-DVD7050 7″ TFT Portable Tablet-Style DVD Player is the latest advance in portable DVD player design. Its thin monolithic design is easy to carry and use. Lets say you’re going on a long trip with the family. Set this DVD player in the back seat and your kids will be fully entertained (for the length of the DVD). Use the built-in rechargeable battery (lasts about 2 hours per charge) or plug it into your car’s cigarette lighter (DC car adapter is included). The 7-inch diagonal screen can easily be held at a position you find most comfortable. In addition to playing DVD, you can also play CD audio discs including CDR and CDRW with MP3 files. Listen through its 2 built-in speakers or simply plug in an optional headphone for private relaxation and enjoyment. COBY TF-DVD7050 is a tablet that is possibly therapeutic. Audio Output – Coaxial Digital Out ,3.5mm Headphone Jack Speaker Output – 2 x Stereo Speakers Color System – NTSC (PAL compatible) Power Supply – DC 7.4V AC Adapter Screen Control – On screen display Jack for adding an optional headphone for private listening Multiple Subtitles/Viewing Angles Built-in Anti-skip Circuitry Convenient On Screen Display programmable menus”


Starts off really well, but after a sentence or two, it’s all about tedious feature listings (which, ironically, would be better presented as a bullet list) and nothing that sells me on the product.
Fortunately there are some online retailers who really understand how to sell, rather than how to describe features, and there’s no better example than the amazing, fun, and entertaining J. Peterman Company. Here’s a potentially boring product: Irish Fisherman’s Sweater.
Before you click on the link, how do you think the copywriters at Amazon.com would try to sell this sweater online? Or Victoria’s Secret (which, once you stop staring at the beautiful models, is a surprisingly boring and pedestrian commerce site)? Or even Sled Warehouse?
J. Peterman really, really gets that it’s not about features, though, and here’s their wonderful description:


Ireland of the Comforts

First there’s the weather. Spring lasts a day, February a year. Then there’ the history, equally persistent. The Spanish Armada was a month ago, the Uprising of 1916 was yesterday.

Little wonder the Irish need their comforts. Breeding resilient Connemara ponies. Baking more soda bread than anyone can eat. Sitting in dark, turf-heated pubs, honing their conversation, wearing wonderful sweaters like this.

Irish Fisherman’s Sweater (No. 1781). Pure merino wool, hand-knit in Ireland. Traditional patterns front and back. Deeply textured and robust, but soft and consoling, too.

Nobody does it better than the Irish. Nobody makes you feel better about going out to meet the world.

Irish Sweater

If you have an online store, you should be asking yourself what you need to do so that your product descriptions are so wonderful, so that your text really is helping to sell your product rather than just describe it.
And doesn’t that sweater just look and sound so darn cosy for these cold winter days?
The point here is that while it’s pretty straightforward to pour data into a Yahoo Store template and even get some pictures up and online, the benefit of having someone who can write some creative prose about your best selling products can really reap great benefit and transform your online sales from moribund into delightful.
Oh, and from an SEO perspective, wouldn’t you rather be perceived as cool, linking to a hip store like J. Peterman than something boring and tedious like Amazon.com anyway?
Not convinced? Read this wonderful description, or this one to see really splendid product copywriting in action.
Now, you with online stores or product sales, what’s your excuse for not having something equally engaging and compelling?

7 comments on “The importance of great copywriting on shopping sites

  1. I absolutely agree with you. At Quicken Loans (www.quickenloans.com), we constantly try to improve and create great copy for our products (which being mortgages, obviously aren’t the most interesting things in the world). But we try to be descriptive as posible and we publish a mortgage news rss feed with relevant financial, real estate and mortgage information.
    And last month we just launched our first blog (www.whatsthediff.com), which isn’t product related and focuses on our company culture and the things we find important. We want to create interesting and fun copy to show the world a different side of the traditional stiff-shirted mortgage world. Please provide feedback to help us improve our blog.
    But all of this really goes back to what you said. People buy solutions, not features. No one cares about the name of our interest-only loans. They just want to know how they work and how much money they will save compared to other types of mortgages. That is truly the bottom line!

  2. LL Bean doesn’t have particularly great copy. They will send out about a billion catalogs this year.
    I buy things from peterman but it’s not because of the long copy, it’s because the products are unique and of high quality. J Peterman Co went bust a few years ago so copywriting alone isn’t the magic bullet that sellers of how-to-write-copy courses claim. I’d recomend marketers read Peterman’s book, Peterman Rides Again, over most business books.
    A catalog clothier that follows the peterman formula on a larger scale than peterman is The Territory Ahead. Started in Santa Barbara, CA.
    Have you seen the ThinkGeek snail mail catalog? I like it. It breaks rules, is very well targeted, is jammed with cool products and it effectively uses short copy rather than long Wootish copy. It isn’t mass mailed, just seems to come out twice a year or so.

  3. Good comments here. Your examples reminded me of Trader Joe’s “Fearless Flyer” vs. other supermarket’s flyers.
    The fearless flyers have a lot of compelling copy that extols the virtues or the exoticism of goods available in the store. The customers feel like they are a part of something special when they pick up items they might otherwise just be considered a little above average.

  4. Wow! You presented a perfect example of great descriptions versus ho-hum or NUN. I had to chuckle at “Sled Warehouse” The name alone is so random-sounding! Like something from a Coen Brothers movie.
    This has given me a lot to think about it presenting my own products. Thanks!
    Lisa

  5. Dave, that’s about the most “night” and “day” comparison of good copy I’ve seen. I wasn’t familiar with J Peterman before. BTW, you might want to fix that 3rd to last link to “J. Peterson” – probably s/b “J. Peterman”? – just a nit – but since it goes to a site under construction, I expect you want the copy clean 🙂
    Would love to have that gift of copywriting myself – any recommendations on where or how to acquire or at least improve this skill?
    Thanks,
    John

  6. Love Peterman’s copy.
    It’s not just the copy that makes me salivate, though — they carry high-quality products. And because the products are also high-priced, just a couple of sales makes the extra effort for great copy totally worth it.
    But if you think you shouldn’t bother with mouth-watering copy because you’re selling low-end schlock, go and visit the Archie McPhee site. This is some engaging copywriting for cheap goo-gaws. (Wanna buy a duck? http://www.mcphee.com/items/10676.html )
    Great copy means mcPhee will sell volume. And that makes it all worthwhile, too!
    Aside from dollars and cents, the company that invests a ‘lil effort in being a ‘lil more delightful can win the hearts and minds of prospects — and earn increased word of mouth, to boot.

  7. True enough about how rad that Irish copy is. Though it seems funny your favorite copy would be Irish — the country where writers don’t pay taxes. They get to sit in a pub and write flowery (albeit powerful) copy for extra cash as they draft their novels.
    Here’s a great site for businesspeople who can’t write like that: http://www.writerlance.com/
    You can get good writers who’ll do anything for cheap. It’s kind of gross in a way, how cheap they’ll work, but they’re willing to!
    Love your work,
    Rebecca

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